Throughout many religions, philosophies, and faiths around the world there has always been a figure held up as the absolute personification of evil. Far from reserved from the realms of just Christianity, this archetype of darkness and evil has been present since time unremembered. In modern times such ideas as the existence of a literal Devil have been treated as merely folklore and mythology, a metaphor for the evils of humankind, but there are many who take this to be a very real and present force out beyond our understanding, and adding to this are various tales of actual encounters with something that can only be described as the actual Devil incarnate. Here are some reports through the ages of people coming face to face with the very physical manifestation and avatar of evil itself.
Some of the most dramatic and prevalent of supposed encounters with the Devil throughout history have to do with Saints, who often are reported as not only having come face to face with the Dark One, but also doing battle with him. One of the earlier of these accounts is that of a St. Dunstan, who was a clergyman in England in the 10th century. Eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was considered by many to be a pious, respected man of the cloth, as well as a musician, artist, and skilled metalsmith. He was also said to have had several encounters with the Devil himself.
One of St. Dunstan’s first encounters with Satan was allegedly while he was living in Glastonbury as a hermit. One day a mysterious stranger approached him and requested of him to use his metal smithing prowess to make a chalice for him. Dunstan agreed and set to work making the requested item, but as he did so he noticed that the stranger was changing forms right before his eyes, going from a man, to a woman, to a child, flowing from one form to the other. It became clear that this was the Devil, but Dunstan tried to act like he had not noticed, continuing on with his work as if nothing was amiss. Then, when the chance presented itself, he reportedly grabbed a pair of red-hot tongs from the fire and pierced them into the intruder’s nostrils, which caused great screams of pain and cast the Devil out.
However, the Devil was not so easily dissuaded, and came to visit Dunstan again on another occasion as well, this time as he sat playing the harp. This time the Devil came in the form of a filthy, smelly vagrant, but Dunstan was immediately aware of who he really was. As the stranger approached, Dunstan allegedly grabbed him by the leg and began shoeing him as he might do a horse, nailing a horseshoe to his cloven foot. The Devil supposedly screamed in agony, and agreed to be released on the condition that he never again approach a house with a horseshoe hanging over the doorway, and thus was the legend born that horseshoes are lucky. It is partially due to St. Dunstan’s repeated warding off of the Devil that he was eventually made a Saint.
Another Saint who had apparently had some frightening encounters with the Devil was the Italian Saint Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), also more commonly known as simply Padre Pio, who was particularly known for exhibiting persistent stigmata for most of his life. Padre Pio was also well-known for his frequent and apparently often quite violent battles with the Devil. On one occasion, a Friar Alessio found him lying bloodied and bruised within his quarters, and when Padre Pio was questioned he said that he had been attacked by either Satan or one of his demons, which had left him with three broken ribs. In 1906, one night Padre Pio heard footsteps coming from the next room, which he took to be those of his friend Friar Anastasio. He went to the window and tried to call out to invite him over for a chat, but found that no sound would issue forth from his mouth. That was when he noticed a large black hound sitting menacingly upon a nearby window ledge. He supposedly said of what happened next:
I saw the big dog enter through the window and there was smoke coming from his mouth. I fell on the bed and I heard a voice from the dog that said, 'him it is, it is him.' While I was still on the bed, the animal jumped to the ledge of the window, then to the roof and disappeared.
This sort of encounter would allegedly occur throughout Padre Pio’s life, with the Devil and other demons often assaulting him, dragging him from his bed, striking him, or tossing him about the room. On other occasions he was kept from sleep by banging on the walls or floor, or even being spat upon by an unseen presence. These attacks would intensify to the point that they came on a nearly nightly basis, and the Devil came for him in many guises, apparently for the purpose of tricking, tempting, or beguiling him. One Fr. Gabriele Amorth would say of these varied forms:
The devil would appear to him as an ugly black cat, or in the shape of a truly repugnant animal. The obvious intent was to fill him with terror. Other times demons came as young girls, nude and provocative, performing obscene dances, to test the young priest’s chastity. But Padre Pio sensed his greatest danger when the devil tried to deceive him by taking on the form of one of his superiors (his provincial superior or his spiritual director) or in a sacred form (the Lord, the Virgin, or St. Francis).
The Devil was supposedly particularly infuriated by Padre Pio’s work as an exorcist, and had apparently been cast out many a time by the man. Indeed, these possessed people would often immediately recognize Padre Pio when he arrived, and would go absolutely ballistic, berating and cursing him with shocking profanity and vile fervor. One of Padre Pio’s colleagues, a Father Tarcisio of Cervinara, would say of this:
More than once, before leaving the body of a possessed, the Devil has shouted, 'Padre Pio, you give us more trouble than Saint Michael'"; also, "Father Pio do not steal the bodies from us and we will not bother you."
The Devil would supposedly taunt Padre Pio in other ways as well, including sending an actual letter that appeared as merely splotches across a page until Holy water was sprinkled upon it to make the characters legible. By 1964 Padre Pio was in relatively bad health and getting weaker in the face of such assaults. One attack in 1964 left him severely injured with a bruised spine and numerous cuts, but by this time Padre Pio was at peace and confident in his ability to ultimately keep the Devil at bay, holding no more fear towards this inexorable demonic force. He would say in his final days:
The human soul is the battlefield between God and Satan. The Devil is like a rabid dog tied to a chain; beyond the length of the chain he cannot seize anyone. And you: keep at a distance. If you approach too near, you let yourself be caught. These devils don't stop striking me, even making me fall down from the bed. They even tear off my shirt to beat me! But now they do not frighten me any more. Jesus loves me, He often lifts me and places me back on the bed.
Joining the ranks of Saints who reported having rather dramatic encounters with the Devil is St. Gemma Galgani in the late 19th century, who truly believed that Satan was waging a personal war against her. According to The Life of St Gemma Galgani by Venerable Father Germanus C.P. and her own diaries the Devil was very obsessed with her and intent on attacking her. One of the Devil's favorite tactics against her was to reportedly assault her with terrible headaches that racked her with agony to the point that she couldn’t concentrate to pray, but he was not above directly physically attacking her. On one occasion the Devil purportedly came to her as she was writing alone and dragged her from the table her by the hair with “such violence that it came off in his brutal claws.” She would write of other attacks thus:
The devil, in the form of a great black dog, put his paws upon my shoulders, making every bone in my body ache. At times I believed that he would mangle me; then one time, when I was taking holy water, he twisted my arm so cruelly that I fell to the earth in great pain. After a while I remembered that I had around my neck the relic of the Holy Cross. Making the Sign of the Cross, I became calm. Jesus let me see Himself, but only for a short time, and He strengthened me anew to suffer and struggle.
A particularly terrifying and violent encounter with the Devil was written of in her diary thus:
The demon came before me as a giant of great height and kept saying to me “For thee there is no more hope of salvation. Thou are in my hands!”. I replied that God is merciful and therefore I fear nothing. Then, giving me a hard blow on the head in a rage he said “accursed be you!” and then he disappeared.
I then went to my room to rest, and there I found him. He began again to strike me with a knotted rope, and wanted me to listen to him while he suggested wickedness. I said no, and he struck me even harder, knocking my head violently against the ground. At a certain point, it came to my mind to invoke Jesus’ Father “Eternal Father, through the most precious blood of Jesus, free me!”
I then don’t quite know what happened. That contemptible beast dragged me from my bed and threw me, hitting my head against the floor with such force that it pains me still. I became senseless and remained lying there until I came to myself a long time afterwards. Jesus be thanked!
At other times the Devil supposedly took the form of people she knew or trusted, at one point the body of a priest, trying to trick her into confessing to him, and another time even appearing as the vision of an angel. None of these ruses seemed to have worked, and as with Padre Pio, St. Gemma Galgani never did let the Devil get the better of her, and showed strong will throughout these purported encounters. She would at one point write:
For some days, Chiappino (a name she called the devil) has pursued me in every guise and way, and has done all in his power against me. This monster keeps on redoubling all his efforts to ruin me and tries to deprive me of whomever directs or advises me. But even should this happen, I am not afraid.
It is not only Saints who have supposedly come face to face with the sinister dark face of the Devil himself, and indeed such reports can be found throughout history. In 1683 there was a peculiar incident in which a mysterious visitor dressed all in black and apparently with cloven hooves instead of feet came up to the Tavistock Inn, of Poundsgate, England, upon a black steed and asked for directions to Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Dartmoor. The frightened staff did as was asked, and a few days later a ball of fire apparently smashed into the nearby church of St. Pancras to bounce about wildly, supposedly killing a few people and a small dog. Although this has been blamed on an errant bit of ball lightning, some have said that it was the power of the Devil.
Another account from the 12th century comes from an imprisoned monk, who was condemned to be walled up into the building unless he could complete an enormous religious work within a single night. It of course proved to be an impossible task, and the exasperated monk called upon the Devil himself to help him. Conveniently the Devil actually appeared, and offered to finish the entire text on schedule in exchange for the monk’s soul and an illustration of his dark countenance within its pages. The monk accepted and the entire text was finished on time. This tome would go on to be known as the Codex Gigas, or also known as “The Devil’s Bible,” an enormous book that is 92cm (36 inches) tall, 50cm(19.7 inches) wide, 22cm (8.6 inches) thick, and weighs 74,8kg (165 pounds), making it the largest known medieval manuscript.
The book is fashioned from around 160 animal skins and contains 310 known pages, containing testaments of the Vulgate Bible, various medical texts, some sort of encyclopedia, a calendar, magical spells, and a text on exorcisms, among others, mostly penned in Latin but also featuring Hebrew, Greek, and Slavic alphabets. Prominently displayed here is the notorious illustration of the Devil, with several pages leading up to it displaying a blackened hue in stark contrast to the other pages of the book. Although the legends state that it was penned in a single night, analysis shows that it would have actually taken around 5 years of continuous writing to accomplish, furthering the mystery. I have written of further details of the book thus:
The contents of the text hold many enigmas. The meticulous handwriting is amazingly uniform throughout, suggesting a single scribe. This detail becomes more mysterious when considering that it has been speculated that the entire gigantic collection of texts held within the Codex Gigas’ pages, including the illuminations and illustrations, would have taken a single person around 5 years of continuous, nonstop writing all day and all night to complete, and that a realistic estimate for creating the entire thing, including the animal skin pages and cover, would be around 25 years for a single individual. This is particularly impressive as the handwriting shows no signs of being deterioration or being influenced by age, disease, or the mood of the writer, never deviating throughout the vast tome of texts. Adding to the bizarre nature of the manuscript is the fact that around 10 pages are missing, having apparently been intentionally removed over the centuries, although it is unknown for what purpose. It has been theorized that these missing pages could have held information that was deemed too dangerous to fall into the hands of mere mortals, that the pages were stolen for some nefarious purpose, or that they were simply found to be offensive to some long ago owner of the book.
The mysterious text has been said to be cursed and the bringer of misfortune and death, and has come to rest at the National Library of Sweden in Stockholm. It is a truly bizarre tale, and you can read about it in much more detail in my article here at Mysterious Universe about it. There is actually another mysterious text that is said to hold the Devil’s actual handwriting. In 1523 there was an Italian manuscript that tells of a meeting with the Devil of a Ludovico Spoletano, who supposedly summoned the Dark One in order to help him write a series of answers to questions that had been asked of him. Although the Devil was supposed to merely use Spoletano as a vessel, he reportedly got frustrated and grabbed the pen to write everything down himself. The result is a strange mishmash of characters and letters that have not been decoded since, although there have been found hints that it contains Amharic, a language spoken in its purity in the province of Amhara, Ethiopia. It this a true sample of the handwriting of the Devil? Who knows?
In the 18th century there was also Giuseppe Tartini, who was a violinist, Baroque composer, philosopher, scientist, and music theorist who was a contemporary of such musical greats as Vivaldi and Veracini, who would compose and perform over 200 violin concertos and sonatas over the course of his life. In 1765, Tartini had a dream in which he would claim to have met the Devil. In this dream, the Devil had offered to make him a well-known musician in exchange for his soul. To prove he was legit, the Devil picked up a violin and proceeded to play a haunting tune with magnificent virtuosity, which Taratini would say of thus:
One night I dreamed I had made a pact with the devil for my soul. Everything went as I desired: my new servant anticipated my every wish. I had the idea of giving him my violin to see if he might play me some pretty tunes, but imagine my astonishment when I heard a sonata so unusual and so beautiful, performed with such mastery and intelligence, on a level I had never before conceived was possible. I was so overcome that I stopped breathing and woke up gasping. Immediately I seized my violin, hoping to recall some shred of what I had just heard; but in vain. The piece I then composed is without a doubt my best, and I still call it “The Devil’s Sonata,” but it falls so far short of the one that stunned me in my dream that I would have smashed my violin and given up music forever if I could but have possessed it.
Tartini would obsess over the song he had heard the Devil play in his dream and was finally able to at least approach some semblance of it on paper, although he would always lament how it paled next to what he’d heard the Devil play. He would craft a composition that approximated it, but it would never be what he had heard the Devil play in his dream. The Devil’s Sonata is known, even today, as being an incredibly technically difficult piece to play, so much so that it was once rumored that Tartini would need six fingers to play it the way he did, and that if one were to play it all the way through their soul would be possessed by the Devil. It was even said at the time that the song had been banished from the Kingdom of Heaven for being against God. The so-called “Devil’s Sonata” has been wrapped in mystery ever since, and I have written of it in more detail here before.
There is also the strange account of the traveling English evangelist George Whitefield, who in 1740 found himself in New England at the the church in Ipswich, Massachusetts. At this time Whitefield apparently gave a fire and brimstone sermon that strongly lashed out against Satan to the point that the Devil actually appeared out of anger for all to see. According to all accounts, Whitefield rushed out to engage the Devil, and they wrestled about and fought there in full view of everyone. Toward the end, the pastor Whitefield issued forth a powerful command for his enemy to begone, after which the beast supposedly tumbled off a cliff face to land on the rocks below and apparently land on one foot to skulk off to wherever he came from, leaving behind a footprint that endures on the rocks to this day. And thus was the legend of the Ipswich “Devil’s Footprint” born.
When looking at such reports we come back to the essential question, and that is: Is there an actual, physical Devil, Satan, whatever you want to call it? It this a real entity that has wormed its way into out religions and which makes itself known to us from time to time? Or is this all just legend, myth, and conjecture? For the truly religious there is probably not much thought given to that question, as it is a given, but what about for the rest of us? Does a Devil really exist? For now he remains a specter in the background of legends, but if these accounts are anything to go by perhaps he is not a complete fabrication after all.